The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) [DVD]

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Long time readers of this blog (if there are such things!) may recall that earlier this year I proved singularly resistent to the camp comedy horror charms of the Vincent Price film Theatre of Blood, with a dislike for the sort of sleazy and tawdry British made films of the early 70s being chief among the elements that put me off. You can imagine my unbounded joy when I was sat down to watch The Abominable Dr Phibes, another London-filmed movie of much the same vintage.

qOnce again this production starred Vincent Price, and to make matters even more unappetising it actually sounded as though the two films also shared pretty much an entire plot and story structure. In both, Price plays an artist believed long-dead who has gone insane, and who sets out on a homicidal campaign of retribution against a large group of people that he then dispatches one-by-one using a themed series of outrageously overwrought methods. In Theatre of Blood Price was an old fashioned stage actor who used Shakespearian plays to inspire his series of murders of the group of critics that destroyed his career, whereas in Phibes Price is a renowned concert organist who uses (very loosely) the ten Egyptian plagues of the Bible to kill off all the medical practitioners that had been involved in the death of his young wife during an operation four years previously.

It seems pretty obvious then that having not got on at all well with Theatre of Blood, I’m hardly going to like The Abominable Dr Phibes any better, but you’ve probably already seen the twist in the tale coming: I have to admit that I really enjoyed Phibes, almost as much as I didn’t take to Theatre of Blood. It’s left me rather taken aback as I had to rapidly rethink what it is (and isn’t) that I liked about the one film compared to the other, given that they are apparently so similar in so many ways.

One thing that’s immediately apparent is that despite being filmed in 1971, Phibes is actually a period piece nominally set in the mid-1920s. It’s not a particularly overt, in-your-face aspect to the film – other than some wonderfully vintage motor cars there’s actually very little that strongly dates the film, and like Hammer Horror films of the time the setting is a relatively minor detail. However it does mean that it’s divorced from the contemporary fashions of the early 1970s, and in particular frees it from the sleazy trappings of that period that I found distinctly sour in Theatre of Blood which intentionally wallowed in its contemporary setting of decay and decline. Phibes’ sets are instead heavily influenced by art deco stylings, in particular the title character’s cavernous lair improbably hidden behind a normal-looking row of terraced houses wherein Phibes and his impassive, beautiful female assistant Vulnavia (Virginia North) dance to the music provided by his orchestra comprised of clockwork automatons before they set out to engage in the next grisly murder involving bees, bats, rats and locusts.

Phibes and Vulnavia’s scenes make for bizarre interludes in the film, given that for the most part neither of them can talk. As Price’s most celebrated talent as an actor was arguably that wonderful and unmistakable voice of his, it takes quite a twisted mind to cast him in a role where he only ever gets to use it in a post-dubbed voiceover. With Vulnavia also mute (there was apparently a lot of speculation at the time about whether she was intended to be another of Phibes’ wind-up robotic creations like the band) it means that their scenes together largely consist of long meaningful gazes or Phibes thundering out another piece on the organ while Vulnavia dances along – or more accurately, strikes a static pose all the better to show off some remarkably over-the-top costumes that I’m sure I remember being reused for the aliens on Space: 1999 a couple of years later.

These scenes could either be seen as irredeemably awfully or effectively eerie depending on the viewer’s frame of mind, and that pretty much captures the entire town of the film and of Price’s performance. At times he’s exactly the hammy, overacting thespian he was frequently mocked as being, but there are also moments where he gives a tremendously effective performance full of subtlety and clever invention. The film itself is a similar mix, going from some really quite dark horror (one man is drained of his blood, another had his face crushed, and a later victim faces having sulphuric acid dripped onto his face) to moments of out-and-out comedy that wouldn’t be out of place in a Carry On movie. In particular, there’s one scene where the police have to recover the body of a doctor who has been impaled by a brass status which results in such a brilliantly hilarious back-of-shot skit that I was genuinely howling out loud at the whole thing.

Peter Jeffrey – not an actor I usually associate with comedy – is actually very funny in his role as the semi-straight man Inspector Trout, and inevitably lots of fish jokes are to be had. Hollywood legend Joseph Cotton gets to stick to drama as one of the doctors threatened by Phibes’ campaign of revenge, while other guest stars include Terry-Thomas, Peter Gilmore, John Laurie and an uncredited Caroline Munroe in a very early role as Phibes’ dead wife (so understandably in the circumstances, she doesn’t really say much either.) Most importantly everyone seems to know exactly what they’re doing here and are playing along with the joke in a completely consistent manner even as the film itself darts from horror to comedy to action and mystery. This mishmash could end up going horribly wrong and all over the place – as, frankly, I found with Theatre of Blood – but here in the hands of director Robert Fuest it all feels completely under control at all times no matter how out of left field things fly at the audience.

Also to be commended is the script by James Whiton and William Goldstein (and Fuest, uncredited) which always manages to retain its structure and shape no matter what’s going on around it. Theatre failed in this regard and was too prone to flights of self-indulgence (whether by director, writer, studio or star it’s impossible to tell) and consequently became disorganised and fragmented as a result. Here though there is the sort of discipline you need to make the madcap and the surreal work alongside the dark and serious, and while none of it could really be described as ‘believable’ the end result is certainly far less flawed than Theatre was. You’d think that Phibes had perhaps simply learned the lessons of the other film in order to improve upon it, but in fact it is this movie that predates the other by two years.

Perhaps one further reason why I liked The Abominable Dr Phibes is the hint of Phantom of the Opera underlying it – there might be no ingénue for Phibes to mentor but his pounding away at the organ, his climactic reveal of a terrible disfigurement and even the ambiguous disappearing act at the end all speak to something after Gaston Leroux’s own heart in these matters, and as a result found their way into mine as well. The ending also left the door open for a sequel which duly followed a year later entitled Dr Phibes Rises Again, which I confess I have yet to see.

I watched the film on a DVD that was released back in 2003 but the sound is full and clear, and picture surprisingly good – yes, there are speckles of dirt here and there and quite a lot of grain present, but the colour is appropriately vivid and the widescreen properly anamorphic, unlike the disappointing Theatre of Blood DVD which was released around the same time. Unfortunately in terms of extras there is only a single theatrical trailer, which is not in as good a state as the feature an which should only be watched after you’ve seen the film as it does rather tend to spoil some of the best parts of the movie itself.

There’s also been a new high definition Blu-ray release of both of Phibes’ outings in the last few months, with Arrow Films I’m sure doing their usual impressive job of restoring the film to even greater standards. The Blu-ray of the first film comes with two audio commentaries – one from Fuest, the second from Goldstein – as well as a short video appreciation from The League of Gentlemen, together with a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Julian Upton and the on-set reminiscences of Caroline Munro, illustrated with original archive posters and stills. The Blu-ray of the sequel features an audio commentary by critic and author Tim Lucas, two featurettes about Vincent Price including an interview with his daughter Victoria, and a second booklet this time featuring an interview with Tim Burton. Both Blu-rays are available individually, having earlier been issued in a limited edition The Complete Dr Phibes boxset copies of which are still available from some retailers.

Which to go for? If you’re a true Phibes fan then the extras undoubtedly make the Blu-ray releases a no-brainer, while the casual buyer will probably be perfectly satisfied with the surprisingly good (for their age) DVDs. As for the casting vote, I’d suggest that the surprisingly gorgeous set design and costumes mean that the high-def versions get the nod.

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